Action Civics: Teaching Students to Become Activists (Part 3 of 3)
In my previous two posts on action civics (which you can find here and here), I have suggested that this form of pedagogy is dangerous for two reasons. First, it asks students to become activists in solving problems while failing to give them the tools to fully consider the varying arguments and nuances of an issue. It encourages them to view issues in black and white terms. Second, action civics pushes a model of what it means to be an “active citizen” that many Americans may not agree with.
This post is intended to address a concern that my critics may raise. I can already hear the question: Don’t you think students should have a voice in important issues that affect them and society?
The answer is a resounding yes!
But we can achieve that without pushing a political ideology on students and without the explicit aim of turning students into activists. And, importantly, giving students a voice should not be the only goal of civics education. Indeed, voice by itself is neither a good or bad thing. An uninformed voice can do harm to the individual and society.
The primary goal of civics education, apart from helping students understand how government works, should be to help students be reflective and compassionate individuals. It should be to equip them with the tools to weigh arguments and to decide on a course of action, not to leap to a course of action, consequences be damned.
In their report on action civics, Thomas Lindsay and Lucy Meckler examined 27 political projects listed on the website of Generation Citizen, an action civics organization. Let’s consider just two of the issues noted by Lindsay and Meckler—raising the minimum wage and funding a year-round homeless shelter for LGBTQ+ youth.
Action civics would have the students identify an issue (in this case, poverty), identify a cause (low wages), and advocate for a solution (increase the minimum wage). But of course, there are many other issues at play here. The goal of action civics is to have students do something about the problem. A better goal is to help students understand the issues surrounding a problem. In a discussion about the minimum wage, or any other contentious issue, a good teacher should ask students to consider various viewpoints. If those views do not come up naturally from other students, the teacher should even play devil’s advocate. They should ask: What will happen if businesses are required to raise the wages they pay? Where will the money come from? Do you think this will lead businesses to hire more or fewer workers? Who will be hurt or helped by increasing the minimum wage?
These are discussions students and teachers should have. It is okay at the end of the day for the students to still support raising the minimum wage. It is not okay for them to never hear the other arguments or question their assumptions.
Similarly, consider the project where students advocated for funding a homeless shelter for LGBTQ+ youth. Here is how the discussion between a teacher and students should go: “That’s an interesting idea. How much do you think something like that would cost? And how do you suppose the city should pay for it? Of course, city officials must balance the budget, so the money must come from somewhere. Either they will have to reduce costs somewhere else or they will have to increase revenue. Why does the government have to open the shelter? Is it possible this could be done through private philanthropy?” These are the issues students should be wrestling with.
There is a fundamental difference between the goals of action civics and what I consider to be the primary goals of civics education. Action civics proponents want students to do civics. The goal is to launch students to action, to become activists. But activism is not the goal of education; at least, not in my view.
I believe civics education should help students understand civics and civil dialogue. Not all problems require a government solution and even when they do, not all government solutions work the way we intend them. A good citizen is not one who leaps to action to impose their will on others, but one who reflectively contemplates issues from other points of view. Moreover, as the research of those supporting action civics suggests, most citizens believe being a personally responsible individual who exercises their rights as citizens is exactly what we want to see in our fellow citizens. Action civics downplays this notion of the “personally responsible citizen.” That is simply wrongheaded.